Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic

Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic

Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic

Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic

Synopsis

"The entire town is disguised," declared a French tourist of eighteenth-century Venice. And, indeed, maskers of all ranks--nobles, clergy, imposters, seducers, con men--could be found mixing at every level of Venetian society. Even a pious nun donned a mask and male attire for her liaison with the libertine Casanova. In Venice Incognito, James H. Johnson offers a spirited analysis of masking in this carnival-loving city. He draws on a wealth of material to explore the world view of maskers, both during and outside of carnival, and reconstructs their logic: covering the face in public was a uniquely Venetian response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history. This vivid account goes beyond common views that masking was about forgetting the past and minding the muse of pleasure to offer fresh insight into the historical construction of identity.

Excerpt

I came to this book as many others have come to Venice, drawn in by carnival. I wanted to know what masks tell us about the people who wear them, and Venice seemed like the place to start. Masking there dates back to the thirteenth century. At the height of its carnival, five hundred years later, Venice attracted revelers from across the globe who were eager to change their names and trade their titles for the mask’s anonymity. the season also drew smugglers, con men, prostitutes, and thieves, who had their own motives for disguise. Carnival’s attractions mixed all social ranks in close quarters: in the city’s cafés and gambling dens, in its theaters for music and comedy, before the outdoor stalls of hawkers and touts, and along the crowded lanes around Piazza San Marco. What better setting in which to see the mask’s transformations?

Venice appealed to me for another reason. Most agree that carnival freed its revelers from inhibitions and caused them to act on impulse. Consensus calls the effect topsy-turvy, a mad jumble that upended hierarchy and defied mores. in such a view, the Venetian Casanova’s jubilant hedonism prefigures a later age. For many, the thought of a happy, tolerant population willing to suspend convention shows Venetians to have been ahead of their time. Might we find sources of the modern self in this carnival city? Did their celebrations reveal human nature freed from social constraint?

As I read more, I learned a surprising fact. Starting in the late seventeenth century, Venetians wore masks in public for six months of the year . . .

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